In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Wall Street Journal, the FBI released a rather unflattering report on Steve Jobs. This report was originally compiled because Mr. Jobs was being considered for an appointment to President George H.W. Bush’s Export Council.
Reality Distortion Field
Amongst many less than complimentary comments contained in the report is this one reported in the Washington Post: “Several individuals questioned Mr. Jobs’ honesty stating that Mr. Jobs will twist the truth and distort reality in order to achieve his goals.” This, of course, is nothing new. Back in 1981, Bud Tribble, a manager of the Macintosh software development team, is credited with using the term “reality distortion field” to describe the effect created by Steve Job’s personal interactions and keynote speeches. The term referred to Mr. Job’s ability to convince just about anyone to believe just about anything – irrespective of the degree of truth contained in the communication.
Of course, Steve Jobs seems to have gotten a bad rap for this. Many others have created even greater “reality distortion fields” in their business dealings.
Microsoft and the first IBM PC operating system
When IBM came to call on Microsoft to buy the CP/M operating system for the IBM PC they planned to introduce, Bill referred them to Gary Kildall of Digital Research who was the author and owner of CP/M. The meeting between Gary and IBM did not go well, and IBM returned to Gates and Microsoft for help. Gates sensed a huge opportunity and told IBM that Microsoft had an operating system he could sell them. He did not. Instead, Paul Allen quickly bought one from a nearby developer, Tim Patterson, without telling Patterson that Microsoft was going to resell it to IBM. Many believe that this episode goes beyond creating a reality distortion field and borders on outright dishonesty. Well, whatever you call it, IBM’s fortuitous landing on Microsoft’s doorstep catapulted Microsoft from a little-known maker of microcomputer languages, whose greatest asset was its name, to one of the most powerful companies in the world. This partnership ended in a bitter divorce when IBM wanted a proprietary OS2, and Microsoft preferred to copy the look and feel of the Mac OS in its Windows operating system.
Microsoft and the Vista debacle
Years later, after Microsoft introduced its much-anticipated Vista version of its Windows operating system, the complaints kept pouring in. In spite of the complaints and bad reviews, Bill Gates tried to create his own reality distortion field by saying that the Vista OS has been well received. In fact, Bill went on to tell Reuters that Vista has had “an incredible reception” and that the “reviews have been fantastic.” In actuality, Vista was a disaster for Microsoft from the get-go.
HP’s former CEO Leo Apotheker
While still CEO of software giant SAP, Leo Apotheker denied direct involvement in a software theft scandal that cost SAP $1.3 billion in damages. After becoming CEO of HP, Mr. Apotheker said that the WebOS operating system HP acquired as part of the acquisition of Palm Inc. would be the future operating system in all HP computers and devices. Then he moved forward on the development of the HP TouchPad, which he told analysts would beat Apple’s iPad. He went on to say that the TouchPad would not be released until it was perfect. When it was released, it was far from perfect. In fact, after only 48 days on the market, Leo said that HP was abandoning the TouchPad due to poor sales. He then followed that announcement with more shockers that included HP would abandon its PC division and buy a British Software firm named Autonomy that had been shopped everywhere with no takers at the offering price. And finally, HP discontinued WebOS and the TouchPad and gave Mr. Apotheker his walking papers. Speaking of reality distortion fields, Leo created a big one from Germany to Palo Alto that engulfed SAP and HP and their resellers.
To promote the introduction of its PlayBook tablet computer, Research In Motion (RIM) led with the headline “Amateur Hour is Over.” If there ever was a reality distortion field, this is it. Firstly, the “amateurs” they were knocking, Apple and Google, are two of the most valuable technology companies in the world. Secondly, they broke at least two rules of marketing – (1) don’t knock competitors and (2) don’t be arrogant. The media had a field day with this Playbook introduction.
- Mark Walsh on Mediapost.com: “Has Amateur Hour Just Started? RIM’s PlayBook Flub?”
- Hugo Miller on Bloomberg.com: “RIM Recalls 1,000 PlayBooks Tablets Because of Operating-System Glitch.”
- John Paczkowski on Digital Daily: “Actually, Amateur Hour Seems Far From Over, RIM.”
Fast-forward to the present, and RIM’s Playbook is being sold to employees and others at deep discounts. As with the HP TouchPad, the arrogant bravado just masked a series of failures that cost RIM $485 million in the 4th quarter of 2011 and hastened the departure of its co-CEOs.
Positive and negative reality distortion fields
Even if Steve Job’s and Apple are saddled with the stigma of the reality distortion field, they at least have made a series of successful products that have made the world a better place and Apple the most valuable company. In the case of Bill Gates with Vista, Leo Apothecker, and the co-CEOs of RIM that recently stepped down, the reality distortion fields they created are associated with failures that have cost their companies and many of us a lot of lost time and money. It seems that the market is willing to forgive reality distortion if it produces successful results. It is very unforgiving when the reality distortion proves to be a cover up for failure.